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The College Admissions Process: A Guide For The Perplexed MAG
It's that time of year again. The winter is almost upon us. Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors have adjusted to what they consider just another school year. Meanwhile, seniors have shifted into the panic mode. As they wade through the endless flow of college literature and grind their teeth at the thought of filling out dozens of applications, they ask the age-old question: what is it that colleges really want?
Seniors should actually avoid trying to "psyche out" what colleges want, according to Lawrence Momo, Dean of Admissions at Columbia College. "The most important thing," advises Momo, "is to relax and be yourself."
Brandeis' dean of admissions, David Gould, agrees. "Even though the admissions process seems overwhelming, there is a tremendous range of opportunity out there. No matter how it may seem, colleges really are excited about students."
Primarily, colleges care about academics. "We are looking for very intellectually curious students," stresses Mike Goldberger, Associate Dean of Admissions at Brown University. "We look mostly at grades and at the level of classes a student has taken."
Colleges generally review a student's academic picture, but they can be forgiving. Says Goldberger, "If we look at the record of someone who is interested in science and who has received consistently excellent grades in science, we might overlook a bad grade in French. However, big variations show problems and we look for consistency in grades."
SATs and Achievement Tests are also important, but are treated differently by different schools. At Brown, standardized tests are considered, but only in the context of everything else. At Brandeis, these tests account for about one-fourth of the decision and at Boston University, they are used as the second determining factor. Regardless of the school, academics are infinitely more important than test scores, so students should not worry unduly about SATs.
A common trend among seniors and some juniors is signing up for every possible extra-curricular activity. "This is not the best approach," cautions Momo. "We look for extra-curricular activities that show a student has been consistently involved in a few things that interest him or her. It's better to show a strong commitment to a few clubs or hobbies than to have a list of eight or ten activities without having made a difference in any of them."
Students struggling to write a personal essay often wonder whether colleges will ever read their efforts. "Colleges do read the essays," assures Tom Rajala, Director of Admissions of Boston University. "Our senior staff members really pay attention to the essay as a way of getting beyond the numbers and learning about the student." Goldberger adds, "The personal essay is sometimes the one thing a student has in his power. The grades have been determined and the extra-curricular activities cannot be begun senior year. A student can impress a school with his or her essay. We look at what you say and how you say it. Grammar and spelling, as well as complexity of thoughts, are all important. The essay tells us who you are and how you think. Although a great essay won't save a bad application, it could enhance or destroy a borderline application."
Applying for college is a difficult task, but not the life or death issue many seniors view it as. Momo comments, "Every senior has an image in his or her mind of the perfect school. The truth is that there really is no one perfect school for anybody. Every student can be equally happy at a number of different schools. Be careful not to put all your hopes in one college or in a few colleges. The trick is to come up with a group of schools, some hard to get into and some safe, but all of which will satisfy you. You should be able to look at your list of colleges and say to yourself, ANo matter which of these I go to, I will be happy.'"
"The most important thing to remember," advises Rajala, "is the person going through four years of college is you. While your parents and guidance counselors definitely have an important role, you should be making the decision. The student is the only person who will be dealing with the academic and social situation at college. You should not go where your parents want you to go or where your friends want you to go, but rather the place you want to spend the next four years of your life." n